Egypt army salutes Morsi

President Mohamed Morsi oversaw a passing out ceremony of military recruits.

Egypt President Mohammed Morsi. Picture: AFP

CAIRO - Sat between Egypt's two top generals, newly elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi oversaw a passing out ceremony of military recruits on Thursday in a rigidly choreographed scene that could almost have been taken from the era of Hosni Mubarak.

Yet beneath the formalities, a more subtle game is at play as two long-time adversaries size each other up for what is likely to be an Islamist war of attrition to scale back the influence of an army that has ruled the nation for 60 years.

Morsi, propelled into office on Saturday with the first real popular mandate in Egypt's history, saw his powers trimmed on the eve of victory by generals as wary of Islamists as their old commander in chief Mubarak, ousted last year in a street revolt.

The new president has quickly fallen in step with the displays of military pomp that are a fixture of Egyptian national life, even though the armed forces have given him no influence over their affairs.

The government he is trying to form could leave the most powerful ministries in the hands of the army, which also has the last word on new laws since it disbanded the lower house of a parliament dominated by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, following a court ruling that found fault in the voting process.

In the eight decades since it was formed, the Brotherhood has mostly avoided outright confrontation with those in power and Morsi looks likely to uphold the tradition - working below the radar to make gradual inroads into a monolithic state.

"It's a dance of the scorpions between the two of them," said a senior state official, commenting on the developing dynamic between Morsi's team and the military leadership.

Officially, the army has taken control of Morsi's future powers by handing itself veto power over a new constitution. But the president's popular mandate gives him a strong hand to demand enough power to tackle corruption and poverty and restore stability, all demands of those who led the uprising that toppled former air force commander Mubarak.

One Western diplomat said Morsi was acknowledging the need for compromise by accepting what he called an "imperfect presidency" that was still better than none at all. It was, he said, "part of Egypt's new political cohabitation".

Whether that struggle for influence has succeeded may only emerge long after the constitution is approved and depends on whether Morsi can assert his authority over an inefficient bureaucracy marred by corruption.

GRADUAL REFORM

Morsi already changed some presidency staff and security officers. He has met the heads of the state finance and audit bodies to call for more transparency and better management, according to a senior aide to the president.

For now, he and the Brotherhood seem to be going along with the army's plans. One senior Brotherhood official suggested the military was expected to keep control of defence, interior and foreign affairs in a government to be formed in coming days.

"They will continue to be run as they have before," the official close to the movement's leadership, who asked not to be named, said of the ministries.

But he added that gradual reforms were expected at the Interior Ministry, which has been the target of widespread criticism because of tough police tactics in Mubarak's era. However, the final shape of the cabinet has yet to appear and the Brotherhood has said it will work with Islamist allies, Christians, liberals and others to form a coalition government.

The group, from which Morsi has formally resigned his membership, has also said repeatedly it wants to avoid a confrontation with the army. Brotherhood officials have also said it will take years before the army exits politics.

" Morsi cannot take on the military establishment now. But he can restructure the Interior Ministry to remove the networks of interests that hold it together," political analyst Mohamed Soffar said.